Emmanuel Cooper

Portrait of Emmanuel CooperSpectrum bowls by Emmanuel CooperStoneware bowls by Emmanuel Cooper
two jugs by Emmanuel Cooper
Porcelain bowl by Emmanuel Cooper

As a critic, writer, potter and educator, Emmanuel Cooper’s contribution to the world of ceramics is hugely significant. 

As a founder Trustee on the Board of The Making, Emmanuel made a unique contribution to establishing the purpose of the organisation, which is to transform people’s lives by inspiring them to engage with the art of making.   For ten years he gave The Making his unstinting support, advising on the development of the organisation’s participation and learning philosophy, as well as its financial and organisational objectives.  His wisdom, warmth and generosity of spirit will be very sadly missed by all.

As a potter, Emmanuel’s first solo show was in 1968. He continued to exhibit regularly his vessels which are characterised by an interest in marrying relatively classic forms to vibrantly coloured glazes and unusual textures. Yet he also had other interests: he was a founding editor with Eileen Lewenstein, of the highly respected magazine Ceramic Review, and from 1996 he was its sole editor; he curated exhibitions, wrote books, was Visiting Professor at the Royal College of Art and was awarded an OBE for his services to the arts. However in spite of his writing and teaching activities, Emmanuel remained at heart a potter, saying, ‘The head, heart and hand literally and metaphorically come together when I'm creating.’

In late 2008 he gave the following interview to The Making.


Nearly all your work is thrown on the wheel. Why are you so attracted to this process?

It’s magic! You put the clay on and – if it works – it just comes up. I love centring the clay and feeling it running smoothly through my hands, seeing it grow as if by magic on the wheel – it’s a wonderful way of working.

Most of your pieces are in a vessel form. How important a role does function play in your work?

I see myself as making objects that relate both directly and indirectly to function. The bowls and jugs I make by throwing, cutting and manipulating clay are meant to be ‘jug forms’ rather than actual functional objects. You could use them but because of various aspects of their design – such as the way the handles are placed – they would be clumsy to use. I also make porcelain bowls which usually have fairly narrow feet so again, while they could be used, they are not necessarily very efficient – and their prices don’t really encourage people to use them. My stoneware bowls could be used for things like fruit but because of their textured surfaces they are not suitable for soft fruit.

Are you interested in making entirely non-functional pieces?

I have recently started working on more abstract forms. I’ve made a series of conical forms – a bit like traffic cones - inspired by buildings such as The Gherkin and their only function is visual.

Colour and glazes are very important aspects of your work. Where did this interest stem from?

When I first started working I used an electric kiln, taking a fairly conventional approach and making tableware. I then became more interested in making individual pieces as I thought you could do more with an electric kiln. I started experimenting and as an electric kiln can give you much brighter colours than a reduction kiln I tried to create an electric kiln aesthetic rather than sticking to a more subdued Leachian line. I live in one of the great capital cities of the world surrounded by enormous amounts of colour and texture and I wanted to put that into my pots. At the moment I am very interested in brightly coloured glazes. I find the work of artists like Donald Judd and Barnett Newman who flood their surfaces with colour helpful and inspiring.

Are you interested in the texture of your pieces?

Yes, I like giving my stoneware bowls a textured glaze. It’s achieved by painting the bowl with two layers of reactive slip loaded with various chemicals and then painting one or two layers of glaze on so that they all react together to create a volcanic-type surface. But it’s important that it’s a smooth surface as I find rough surfaces unpleasant to touch.

The surface decoration of your pieces is clearly a very important aspect of your work. Which takes priority, a vessel’s form or its texture and colour?

It’s hard to separate out – I think about form and glaze at the same time. The form has to be simple as it has to carry the bright colour and the size of the bowl has to relate to its type of texture. But you make the pot so that engages you first and its form is the most important thing – if a bowl’s form doesn’t work before it’s glazed it certainly won’t work after it’s glazed. My forms are fairly classic and are influenced by Oriental traditions, although they do change and you can see subtle differences in them.

As editor of Ceramic Review and Visiting Professor at the Royal College you spend a lot of time looking at other potters’ work. How does this feed into your own practice?

I do see an enormous amount of work but when I’m in my studio I become another person. It’s all gone in but it’s gone through an enormous process of absorption and assimilation and so there are no conscious influences. When I’m in my studio I’m the same as any other potter – uncertain and apprehensive. Both my writing and my making are forms of communication, but my making is a communication with myself – there’s no one to argue with and whatever happens is your responsibility, you just have to be sure that what you’ve made is you.

You have been involved in both making and writing about ceramics for many years. Are there any new trends identifiable since you first started your career?

I think there is more openness to design now, certainly among the students. The ways of working are very different – when I started I worked as an apprentice and saw myself as a potter. Although there are still some people who would consider themselves potters, the folk image has been slowly left behind – people work in studios not workshops now and there are many more design possibilities. Also the old moral framework about truth to materials and function has gone which I think is probably a good thing.

Interview by Diana Woolf